Merrick Garland asks FBI to address threats against school boards over COVID-19 restrictions, masks, racial debates
The "disturbing spike" in harassment, intimidation and threats against school board members and staff should be discouraged and prosecuted when appropriate, Attorney General Merrick Garland said this week in a memo to the FBI and state attorneys general.
"While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views," Garland said.
Days earlier, the National School Boards Association asked for an investigation by the Justice, Education and Homeland Security departments – as well as assistance from the FBI – to maintain safety for school board members, staff and students.
The unruly and sometimes violent episodes at public meetings, plus death threats toward elected members, has risen to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes, the association said in its Oct. 1 letter to President Joe Biden's administration.
The clashes have centered on COVID-19 protocols as well as how classrooms address race, equity, social justice and sexual equality. The school board association identified more than 20 instances in various states where controversy led to assaults, threats or arrests to board members or school staff.
"Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation's core values," Garland said Monday. He added that the department would soon share measures to address an increase in criminal conduct toward school personnel.
Garland said federal, state and local leaders should convene in each judicial district over the next month to discuss strategies for addressing the threats against school workers. The meetings would open dedicated lines of communication for threats to be reported and assessed, he said.
Conservative groups have led much of the fiery critiques against masks and what they often falsely perceive as the teaching of critical race theory in schools. One group, Parents Defending Education, says violence is unacceptable, but federal intervention isn't warranted.
"By unnecessarily injecting the federal government into local school board matters, the intent seems to be to chill legitimate protest and debate, not address actual threats," President Nicole Neily said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.